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Starting Out With Components
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1

Starting Out With Components

As our customers, our managers and the sales team ask for increasingly complex applications, the demands made of software developers are growing at an ever-increasing rate. Lately, the vogue for companies, quite rightly, has been to automate their business processes. Now the drive is to integrate all of these disparate systems together, often with the addition of a web interface so that access to these products and services is more widely available.

 

The continual growth in the adoption and expansion of computer-based systems leads to more sophisticated (or complicated) applications�some of which take years to develop, or evolve without direction into unmanageable systems that no single developer fully understands. When the system requires maintenance or an upgrade, where's the developer who built the thing in the first place? They're either 'too busy', or they've moved on to richer pastures (not uncommon in today's market). That means that some other poor developer has to bear the pain and hardship of working out where changes need to be made�and the ramifications that these changes will have on other parts of the system.

 

Concerns over scalability, structure and maintenance of these increasingly complex systems, coupled with the demands that are the very nature of software development, mean that something is needed to ease the burden. Components have got a lot to offer us. If you think of a component as a small, self-contained nugget of code that we write to sit at a well-defined point in a system's architecture and perform certain (related) tasks, we can begin a list of the benefits of components right here:

 

q        Because by itself it is a lot simpler than the entire application, we can maintain it easily.

q        Because it's self-contained, we can upgrade simply by taking out the old component and putting the new one in its place. The same applies to components that we discover to contain bugs.

q        If it's useful elsewhere, we can reuse it�we may borrow it for our own purposes, or put it on the market.

 

We could go on, but we'll save that for later. The point is this: everything we've said so far is just as applicable to ASP and web development as it is to any other kind of development. Web sites are becoming more complicated: our ASP applications are being asked to incorporate the functionality of traditional applications; to centralize the point of access for end users who need to get at different applications; to handle increasing numbers of users. The fact is, we need to give components some serious consideration.

 

Components are already an important part of programming and software development, and the ability to build and use components is a valuable tool in any programmer's arsenal. In fact, these days, component building is arguably an essential skill.

 

In this chapter, we're going to convince you that you already know quite a bit about programming with components; we'll look at some typical scenarios in which components are used; and we'll begin to investigate the impact that component programming has on application design. By the end of the chapter, you should understand that componentization isn't just about code reuse�it implies a new way of creating applications, opening the door to techniques and technologies that aren't available in 'traditional' programming. Specifically we will see:

 

q        The advantages of using components

q        The basics of COM�Microsoft's Component Object Model

q        An introduction to 3-tier and n-tier application development

q        Examples of situations where you're probably using components already

q        How to build and use our first component

The Advantages of Componentization

Consider the question, "What's the best approach to the solution of a complex problem?" Perhaps the most obvious answer is this:

 

q        Break it up into a number of smaller parts, each of which is self-contained and can be easily understood

q        Solve each of the smaller parts (or use a ready-written solution�you might have a solution lying round from a previous project, or you might buy in a third-party solution)

q        Bring each of the smaller parts together to create the overall solution

 

This approach generally works very well�and programming is no exception. The reason is probably its simplicity�but this simplicity is the key to good software engineering and development.

COM�the Component Object Model

The good news is that there is an established technology available to us today that allows us to build our applications this way. It is called COM�the Component Object Model. COM is the software industry's favored solution for solving the complex problems relating to large applications and code reuse on the Windows platform. Using componentization, large applications can be assembled from smaller, self-contained packages of software, each of which performs a particular task.

 

By using components, we only need to write a small amount of application code to act as 'glue', sticking the pieces together. The 'glue' then simply calls the components into being, provides them with the information they need to do their work, and then either lets them get on with it or waits for them to produce a result. In this sense, they can be like little "black boxes" of functionality: you don't need to know how each component achieves its task; you just need to know what it's capable of doing and what values you can provide it so that it will accomplish the task it is built for.

A Couple of Analogies

If that sounds a bit esoteric, consider what happens when you need to ask the operator for your uncle's telephone number. You call the operator, and you give the name and address of your uncle. Then, they go away and do their thing... and eventually they come back with a number (or not, if your uncle has no telephone). In this sense, the operator is acting like a component�maybe the request would be programmed like this:

 

�� Dim objOperator

�� Set objOperator = Server.CreateObject("Operator")

�� Response.Write "The phone number you require is " & _

������������������ objOperator.GetNumberFor("Uncle Brian", "Chicago")

 

The point here is that we're not particularly worried about how the operator finds the number�we just give them the information and expect them to do the job.

 

As another example, think about hi-fi 'separates'. You buy an amplifier, a pair of speakers, a CD player, and you wire them all together with some leads. Then, a month later, you decide that you wanted a turntable so that you can play all your old vinyl. But you don't go out and buy a whole new system�after all, you already have an amplifier and speakers. You just expand the existing system by purchasing the turntable and plugging it into your amplifier.

 

In your average software house, this is how customers and the sales/marketing department think that application development works. Wouldn't it be nice if it really did?

 

Well, there can be a strong similarity. You may not have realized it, but you're already using COM components. For example, in your software development, you've probably already come across ActiveX Data Objects (ADO)�a set of components for data access. Or perhaps you've used the Ad Rotator component, the Content Rotator component, or some of the other components that are provided as standard with ASP?

 

Better still, look at the software you use every day�things like Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer. Many of these kinds of application are written using components. The Internet Explorer executable (Iexplore.exe) is only 77Kb in size; all of its sophisticated functionality is handled by numerous other components, which the executable only calls into action when necessary.

What Do Components Do for Us?

Hopefully, we've given you an incentive for wanting to learn about components. The advantages of packaging up our code into components rather than using script are numerous, and we'll outline the main ones here.

Code Reuse and Distribution

Possibly the two most common reasons for using components are:

 

q        Breaking up a complex application into manageable chunks, as we've already discussed

q        Packaging up code that you are likely to need more than once so that it can be re-used

 

Having written a piece of code that performs a specific function, cutting and pasting the appropriate pieces into another program can often be difficult. If you've ever done this with your own code, you'll know how tricky it is to remember how you originally intended the code to work�you may have to work out what each line is doing in order to select precisely the correct lines. And if you've ever done it with someone else's code, you'll know that it's even harder!

 

When you package code into a COM component, you are automatically providing a clear definition of precisely how to use the functionality of that component. You'll still need to document it, but you won't need to do any cutting and pasting of code.

Easy Distribution

Of course, this also makes for a convenient code distribution technique. When passing your neatly packaged component to your colleagues and customers, they don't need to understand the code behind it to get it to work�you just tell them what tasks it can achieve and what information they'll need to pass to it.

 

For example, we don't need to know how the ADO components work in order to use them. We can just retrieve them from the Microsoft web site, install them, and let Microsoft's documentation tell us the rest.

Binary Distribution and Reuse

As we'll discuss in more detail later on, COM components are language neutral�they can be written in one language and used in another. If you ask a Visual Basic compiler to compile some C++ code, you'll see some interesting errors and it won't work. Ask a Visual Basic application to use a COM component that was written in C++, and it will work fine.

Maintenance and Replacability

Here's a case in point: if you have to do a lot of form field validation, you can write a component that performs the task for you�that way, you centralize the code in a component, and you can simply reuse it time and time again.

 

If you ever find a problem with your validation code, you can just correct the component and reinstall it in place of the faulty one. Drawing an analogy with our telephone operator example, this is comparable to the operator being off work. The telephone company just installs another operator as a stand-in. We, as clients, don't care which operator is on the other end of the 'phone�so long as they can do the job.

Commercially Available Components

There are an ever-growing number of components that are available commercially. If you have a programming task to achieve, it's quite possible that there's already a component out there in the marketplace that will help you to achieve you goal, or even provide a complete solution. Buying a suitable third-party component means that we don't need to research, write and test the component ourselves�this brings three immediate advantages:

 

q        We can acquire the component immediately, and therefore we should be able to deliver our final solution faster

q        We've effectively replaced the cost of development and testing (for that part of the project) with the cost of a fixed-price lump of pre-written code�which is usually cheaper

q        Highly specialized components are usually written in consultation with specialists in the field. In that case, we also avoid the cost of employing a specialist

 

In addition, commercial components should be tried and tested in their market situations, so you can be fairly confident that it will perform well at the task it is intended to achieve (although it's worth restricting yourself to buying components only from trusted suppliers, as you generally don't get to see the source code). One very popular example of such a component would be a credit card verification component for use in e-commerce sites.

 

To get an idea of the number of components on the market, check out some sites that specialize in selling components over the Web. For starters, try http://www.componentsource.com, http://www.greymatter.co.uk, and http://www.serverobjects.com.

Performance Advantages

When you're executing complicated code, you're always looking to reduce the time it takes to process. However, if your code is in the form of ASP or some other script, you can reasonably expect it to take a while. That's because scripting languages are interpreted. That is to say, each line of code needs to be converted into more elementary instructions (binary code) that the processor can understand, before that line can be executed. That happens every time a script is run.

 

By contrast, components are usually already compiled, which means that they have already been converted into the binary format. This means that the component's methods�the functions that it makes available�can be executed straight away. The result is that components often execute much more quickly than plain scripts do.

Hiding Sensitive Code

If you're distributing code, then you need to think about whether you want other people to see it. If they can see it, they can figure out how it works, and they can probably also tamper with it. If you're distributing script files, your code is open to these kinds of threat.

 

Writing components in languages such as Visual Basic and C++ requires you to compile them. By compiling the component, you produce the binary representation that we mentioned in the previous section�not only does this execute efficiently, but also it protects your code from snoopers and code-changers. Your component's business logic is safe from anyone who may wish to meddle with it.

Splitting Tasks Into Distinct Areas

If you have several developers or teams working on an application that is split up into discrete chunks, componentization makes it possible for each of the different groups to work on a different part of the application. Each task can be clearly defined, and you can specify the values that the different parts of the application need to share in order for the application to come together as a whole afterwards.

Ease of Debugging

While the Script Debugger is a very useful tool, it isn't nearly as sophisticated as the debuggers in Visual Basic and (in particular) Visual C++ . The debugging tool in the Visual C++ development environment, for example, allows you to look right down into the computer's memory to see what is being stored where.

 

This kind of capability means that, if you're using Visual C++ or Visual Basic to write components that are intended to perform complex tasks, you gain the edge in terms of finding out exactly why your code isn't working properly.

 

That covers some of the major advantages of componentization, although we will see others as we go through the book�in fact, we'll see some more in this very chapter. If you take all of these advantages into account as you write your ASP applications, you may soon find yourself writing less of your programming logic in script, and placing more of it into components. The ASP script becomes the 'glue' that binds the component pieces of your application together.

How It All Comes Together

So, to recap: COM stands for the Component Object Model, which is a framework for creating and using components.

 

Microsoft introduced the COM framework back in 1993, as a model for describing and implementing components in such a way that they could interact with each other and with all COM-enabled platforms and applications. COM is the specification to which components are written and used on the Windows platform�and there are now implementations of COM on many non-Microsoft platforms. Every component that we develop in this book will be a COM component, and will therefore conform to this specification.

 

Let's backtrack a little. We've just made a rather lofty claim. All COM components will be able to interact with all other COM-enabled platforms and components? How do they do that?

 

The foundation of COM is a binary specification that defines how the code using a component�usually called a client�can use the functionality that a component makes available. On the flip side, it also defines how a component exposes that functionality to a client.

 

Because COM is a binary specification, it allows language neutrality. As long as a given language can produce compiled code that complies with the binary specification, it can be used to write COM components�and it can also interact with COM components written in any other COM-enabled programming language.

 

There are a number of languages in which you can write COM components. In this book, we will mainly see how to write COM components in Visual Basic and C++, although there are many more languages you could use, including Visual J++, SmallTalk and Delphi.

 

So, while this book is about components for ASP, the components that we'll develop are all COM components�and that means that (with some exceptions) they can be used in other COM-aware programs, such as standalone applications written in Visual Basic or Visual C++. As we will see in Chapter 3, the ability to do this is dependent upon whether our components are designed to interact with the environment that calls them. If we develop a component that relies on some functionality of the ASP object model, for example, we will only be able to use it within with ASP applications. There are, however, very many occasions when our components will be reusable in different environments.

 

COM is not the only specification for components�CORBA and JavaBeans are two others. However, as this book is about components for ASP, we will be focusing on COM components.

ActiveX and COM

A term that you may have come across in the context of component-based development is ActiveX, and we should make clear that in most situations, ActiveX means pretty much the same thing as COM. An ActiveX component is the same as a COM component. In addition, an ActiveX control is the same as a COM control, and an ActiveX server is the same as a COM server. But don't let all that confuse you�we'll come back to these terms shortly.

 

Today, ActiveX is little more than an outdated brand name that was introduced by Microsoft a few years ago when they redirected folks towards the Internet and revamped and optimized some of their technologies to meet the low-bandwidth requirements of the Net. There was ActiveX Scripting, ActiveX Components, ActiveX Data Objects, ActiveX Controls, and ActiveX Documents.

 

ActiveX achieved its original goals and got lots of media attention, but since then people have been confused about the differences between COM and ActiveX. Essentially, however, in modern-day parlance and as far as ASP component development is concerned, ActiveX implies COM.

Components and Objects

We've established that a COM component describes a set of related functionality and the code required to achieve that functionality. When we want to use a component's functionality, however, we don't make constant references to the component itself. Rather, we use the component as a blueprint, and we use it to create an entity that we refer to as an object.

 

The process of creating an object from a component is called instantiation. An object is a single instance of a component. The object is created in the image of the component, and is the vehicle by which we make use of the component's functionality.

 

In code, we use objects. An object represents a single entity within our code; we use a component as the blueprint for creating an object.

 

We may want to use several instances of a single component at any one time, within different applications. Or we may have a single application that uses several instances of the same component�just like having many variables (or 'instances of variables') to hold different strings.

 

You should be aware that the term 'component' is often used to refer both to the COM component and to the instance�relying on the context to imply the exact meaning.

 


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